Midwife in the Tire Swing
Chapter 34—Sarah in the Tire Swing
I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion.
—Ernest Dowson, Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae sub Regno Cynarae
There had been a heavy rain the night before. Lucy Hobart lifted aside a corner of the window shade for a peek outside. “Still there. Just like I left it, the world, God’s creation, grass and trees, creatures, the hunter and the hunted, the river. Peace after the storm, doesn’t appear to be a blade of grass out of place. Whaddya think of that, Miss Molly? And we shall together go forth on this fine day to do God’s work, shoulder-to-shoulder with the Almighty? He to create, I to destroy.” The cat snored. It was curled up in a tight ball on a paisley cushion on a high backed wicker chair. It did not wake up.
“You should pay attention, cat; I might be saying something important. ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ Robert Oppenheimer said that, about the atomic bomb?” Lucy raised the shade. Across the ‘hole’—a slight concavity in the Hobart lawns thus called by generations of Hobart children—and eventually into the rain-swollen brook, a freshet roiled forth billows of brown, foaming water.
“Anyway, it wasn’t Oppenheimer exactly; it was the Bhagavad-Gita, four-handed Shiva’s laughter. Blue, four-handed, three-eyed Shiva. There is nothing unimportant; God sees all and hoots. From a pussy-cat noösphere you will look back on the day I proclaimed the end of the universe and be sorry you didn’t listen.”
Generations of Hobart men had thought about putting in a frog pond—Lucy’s grandfather built himself a series of raised beds, “terraces” he called them, so that he might be lulled to sleep by the calls of coupling amphibians. It was frozen over when the thaws of January came and cascaded runoff into the river, not the mud burrows where great green bullfrogs lay frozen stiff, resting their vocal apparatus for the coming rut. “Frogs fucking,” he said to Lucy’s father who passed the saying down to his own son, “Frogs can be quite musical; I can’t bear the silence.” But the freshet dried up in the summer and early fall. The frogs died or moved away to sing their songs where water flowed predictably.
A movement. Lucy fiddled with his glasses and polished them on the tail of his nightshirt. From behind the upturned roots of a fallen white pine the weasel appeared; black shining eyes turned to stare at Lucy. It carried the corpse of an iridescent green and red bantam hen in its jaws. “Weasel’s burrow. Under the deadfall over the river. We’ll have us a look-see, eh? Wake up. Call reveille. Assemble the troops.”
He stopped in to check on the other, arguably first, Cat. Catherine Armstrong Hobart dozed in front of her television. A cable channel—all weather all the time, snappy happy chitchat about the latest deaths-by-cyclone in Bangladesh, satellite pictures of shrinking polar ice—filled Cat’s room with a guttering blue light; there was a smell of tobacco smoke. “Global warming. Christ how she loves it,” said Lucy to Molly the cat who was doing a figure eight between the legs of his walker. On the screen an attractive blond woman in a black pants suit smiled a smile of many white teeth as she stroked a map of the northern hemisphere. “Huh—can’t rightly recall, cat. Did I name you—your species—after my wife or did I name my wife after you? Well, you get out of the house sometimes.”
There had been something out of place when he checked the yard from his window, an indefinable something askew in the panorama of the usual. The view was always the same, every time. Not this morning. The ballet of the weasel and the chicken was to be expected, though at irregular intervals, sometimes years. Why, then, did he look? “Because, cat. Because by examining the good Creation I have wrought, I may reaffirm my own existence. I am a god, a godlet...” The cat looked on doubtfully. “A demiurge, then. Can we settle on demiurge this fine day?” The cat flopped over to lick her genitalia. “Ah, just so.”
Lucy went back up to his room; the walker clattered on the stairs. At Cat’s insistence he had had a stair climbing elevator put in but never used it in front of her. She had at first refused to try the chair-lift out for herself, “You know how I am with mechanical things. You’re so bright, Lucy. It’s for you.” Cat stayed on the ground floor.
Lucy checked the view. Yes. Something was different and it wasn’t the weasel.
Below, closer in and myopically fuzzed over, a pattern was discernable. Lucy found his glasses and checked the lawn. “Crop circles, Miss Molly... That’s what we have today. Or a crop line, space aliens at work, space aliens without much imagination.” A lawnmower stood idle, abandoned at the end of the swath it had cut. “Thing about lawnmowers, you see one and you figure someone pushed it there and left it.” The trail of manicured yard ended at the tire swing. Sarah.
“C’mon, Molly.” The cat continued licking itself from the center of the paisley cushion. “I have to do your cat work for you and you recline on a cushioned throne and nibble your kibble. You know what it costs to keep you in your thick glossy coat with the heavy-lidded eyes of a marauding predator? This is a labor-intensive illusion. My labor. You are a vegetarian. If I want wet food, I have to go and get it for myself.” Lucy stroked the cat behind an ear. “And so do you. Most likely why you eat the dry stuff.”
Sarah sat in a yogic pose—the lotus position—wrists slack on each knee, thumb and forefinger touched to express a perfect circle. Her eyes were rolled back, whites exposed and staring at the sky. “Stare at the sun too long and you’ll go mad,” Lucy said. “Burn your eyes to cinders in their sockets.”
“So that’s what’s wrong with me. It’s cloudy today. I’ll have to look into that.” Clouds shredded and ripped as a stratospheric squall passed by high overhead. “See... told you so.” She did not change her position. “Father dearest, you are a royal pain in the ass.”
“I have had pain, the ten degrees of pain, daughter Sarah.”
In the abstract, Lucy enjoyed his pain, the bone-on-bone grinding of arthritic joints gave him something to think about. With the pain there was no opening for self-pity. He had felt only amputation of the leg could take away the pain, but the doctors made do with a knee replacement. “They put you back together, didn’t they?” his wife asked. “Mostly,” Lucy said, “I got spare parts.” “Well, there you go,” Cat said. “They cut off your leg then they put it back. There is a plan unfolding.”
“I had kidney stones,” Lucy tells Sarah.
“I get ’em every twenty years or so,” he tells the emergency room doctor in 1962. “The pain is the closest a man can come to a difficult childbirth,” the doctor says. “Thanks for the news,” Lucy says. He was stuffed with prescription painkillers at the time and rather enjoying himself. But the pain was still there, just under the umbrella of euphoria.
“You enjoy pain,” Sarah said, eyes closed, seeking a vision of another, better place.
“Nope, but I sure do love the drugs. Pain lets me know I’m still alive. I like being alive, a dull thundering ache in the bone, a saber thrust of angina, the gnawing creep of cancer. Plus there’s always someone to be aggravated. Like you.”
“You are comparing me to cancer.”
“An ingrown toenail, daughter mine. Don’t belittle cancer.”
“I heard you coming.”
“Be hard not to. I raise a ruckus with this thing.” He shook his walker. It rattled. “Noisy.” Lucy looked up to Cat’s window; the shades were still drawn.
“You think she watches you.”
“She watches. Me, you.” Lucy lowered himself to stretch out beside Sarah. “She looks out the window. Sometimes the things she sees make sense, sometimes not. But they always make perfect sense to Cat.”
“And you think she’s watching now.”
“My wife is always watching—TV mostly. I saw you. Cutting the grass.”
“Just enough to get me here. Snakes. Snakes in the grass. I have a morbid fear of snakes.”
“Freudian. You would return to the Garden for an apple but fear the male organ lurking in the bushes. Sarah...”
“When you came you had the look of a much loved woman. You are now pale and wan.” Lucy stared myopically. “Just tits and gristle. My glasses.”
“You are hung up on sex and they are on a string around your neck.”
“I knew that. Why not? I put ’em there, didn’t I? I saw a weasel. She was carrying one of my prize bantams.” Lucy put on his glasses and fixed his eyes at the base of the overturned tree. “She has a family—young ones—is my guess.”
“There.” Lucy took Sarah’s arm and swiveled it to point.
“Nothing there now.”
“No, there wouldn’t be. She gave me a look. She was laughing at me. The hencoop is hers whenever she wants she was saying.”
“You will kill her.” Sarah sighed and returned to her meditations.
“No. I have come to believe the weasel is my tutelary spirit. That weasel, not weasels in general. Not foxes. ‘Fox’ is what we call a high-class lady with a generous ass these days, is it not?” Molly the cat looked questioningly up at Lucy.
“You are talking to your cat. You are a nutcase, father.”
“I talk to you through the cat, daughter. I am furthering her education. I misspoke today quoting the Bhagavad-Gita. This morning I called upon the Almighty, belittling four-handed Shiva. Four hands should be enough even for the Mormons, let alone the evangelists. My mother appeared to me to say that. This afternoon in a nap. They are listening, the spirits of the departed, just like Santa Claus or Jesus and the Apostles on an extension line. Four-handed Shiva sounds like a card game played by cowboys. And I am as sane as you are. Why are you here? After all these years.”
“Because of all the years. I have come to make an atonement. And so shall you. There are no words or deeds to mend the hate between us.”
“I wouldn’t call our relationship hateful, Sarah... Unpleasant, that’s about it.”
“Neither of us can let the other alone. We call constantly, hectoring, nagging.”
“Just keeping in touch. And once in five years is not what I’d call constant. The telephone, impersonal: that’s why I like it. I could hardly recognize your voice when we spoke face to face for the first time.”
“You killed my father. I know that.”
“Yes, I killed him. There—there’s your confession, detective. Take him away. But wait! No body. No name...”
“Did you ever see your supposed father?”
“I was told he was my father. My mother...”
“Clear-eyed Alicia. How she did get all pouchy in the face.”
“She was not old—fifty, sixty perhaps.”
“Fifty with the ruin of booze and cigarettes. Not old the way you and I see old, not now Sarah mine. But old as we saw old then. I am old...”
“And badly preserved.”
“Preserved. I am in pretty damned fine condition for 92 years of age. And I am not a jar of spring pickles. I am a man.”
“Not a good man.”
“A good enough man. And you have come home to kill me.”
“To help you die, that’s different. Death midwife is a noble calling.”
“Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes. It elevates the self-esteem of the provider. Don’t let’s go all warm fuzzies on me.”
Lucy scratched inside his overalls. The skin was wet and cold. Not the dry warm strength he had come to expect from his skin. “I have strong skin—the Hobart integument. This has been passed down to you, Sarah. I can see it in your face.” He shifted his weight from foot to foot to generate some warmth in his legs. “There is a chokedamp hereabouts today. I had my flu shot,” he said. “Just thought you oughta know that. In case you’re worried for yourself, that I could be contagious.”
“You have the flu?”
“No, just the inoculation.”
“You. Ninety-two years old and afraid of a little influenza. Late-onset hypochondria is more like it. At your age, Lucy, you could drop dead from punctuation: a misplaced semicolon. You have gone in for a semicolonoscopy as well as a flu shot?”
“Compared to the others my age and younger, I’m as strong as an army mule. I don’t know why I said that. Cat does that. She says things all the time. Did even when she had her mind.”
“She says things...” Sarah’s shoulders drooped with a theatrical resignation. She let out a mock sigh. “Why, O Lord is it ever thus: the daughter called to pay for the sins of the father.”
“Sounds good to me,” Lucy said.
Sarah kicked her legs and started swinging, away from her father.
“It’s a pendulum. The farther you get the closer you come. Cat. And you. You all come to me, eventually, then go sailing away in the sky.” Lucy felt in his pocket to see if the vial of nitro pills was still there. It was. “My wife is the nutcase. Sarah... you listening?”
“If you are my father, Cat is not my mother... and the green grass grows all around, all around,” Sarah called from the apogee of a high-flying arc that took her parallel with the ground at its high point. “You are telling me this might be important later on.”
“Before the TV came in—that would be the 1950s, Cat loved the radio. She wasn’t half so crazy then. Just her personality, not senile dementia. She’d have the only station we could get always turned on so as to catch the Star Spangled Banner when they signed it on at daybreak. WBOO, ‘The Big Boo in Caribou.’ Farm reports mostly, some high school kid trying to make his voice sound low—‘The Nooz at Newn.’ They had a free want ads show and come dinner time she’d have the radio up loud and be repeating everything it said. There was a little delay, like simultaneous translation at the United Nations.
“She’d read out street signs. ‘Oak Street, Lucy. It says that right up there. Isn’t that nice.’ And read the want ads out loud from the newspaper. And the roadside billboards. Burma-Shave. Those rhymes they stuck up on poles every five, ten miles? You must be old enough to remember those, daughter. No? ‘A man, a miss, a car, a curve: He kissed the miss and missed the curve. Burma-Shave.’”
“That’s it? When did they take them down? No, don’t answer. Let it lay, Lucy. Please, you’ll just make something up. We are trying for some reconciliation here. Cat needs to feel she is communicating. Not with you, probably. Not with anybody in particular. The Cosmic All. She needs to hear herself to know she is alive.”
“The buzzing of the hive. Such finesse proves you to be my daughter. Hive-tone is what I call it. Lamentably, Heaven is broke. Once, then, and always. Forever and after shall be, amen—short of funds. You’ve got a job you say. Ante up. The woman pays.”
Sarah was now lazily swinging to and fro, just past Lucy, dragging a sneaker clad toe in the damp grass. “I’ll accumulate credit with heaven. That is a Buddhist thing.” She stopped her swinging and gazed heavenward, “Hey, you take American Express—a line of credit maybe?”
Lucy paced a tight circle. His walker scraped parallel lines in the flattened grass. “I am trying to get warm. Jack up the circulation. Aerobics. The yard and the road—the pastures and the riverbanks—my gym. No, I don’t need to go back in the house. But thank you for offering.”
“I didn’t offer. I think it would be fitting if you caught your death of pneumonia chatting up your estranged child. Which child, by the way, has driven many miles in a broken-down car just to help you to die.”
“And thereby accumulate credit in Heaven,” said Lucy. He was feeling better. The warmth was returning to his feet and hands. “We are having a fight. Christ, how that elevates my metabolism. You’ve got me feeling good, Sarah. You will be leaving soon.”
“You said you are feeling better. Spry as an eighty-year-old?”
“You’ll yet get to grieve over my forsaken corpse, Sarah. But I have first to perform other rites.”
“I will be leaving you soon,” Sarah says this. “But I will be back. Please do not drop dead without me here. Promise. You have let me down so often. Not this time.”
“I have money. Take the plane. Ed Hobart, he’ll drive you to Bangor.”
“I just got here.” Sarah had been thinking of tying off loose ends. Of cutting the umbilicus, all her attachments in New York: Jerome Levy, Billie Sundae, Crystalline Sphere.
“Why Bangor? That’s over a hundred miles.”
“Bangor is where the airplanes land. And it’s a hundred twenty-seven.”
“How can you be so sure about what I want?”
“Took the train,” Lucy said, thinking about a long-ago Alicia.
“What?” Sarah was no longer surprised by his meandering thought processes.
“Took a week round-trip. Just something I was thinking. You drove here from New York. You will be driving back to say a last goodbye. You will have sex together and he will cry. The farewell fuck. Women do that. Men cry.”
“The men get laid,” said Sarah.
“The men cry.”
“The women cry too.”
“And they get laid too. Then they take the train. A magnificent sob session is had by all. I have doubts—your boyfriend. He most likely won’t shed any tears. Just pack enough for an overnight stay and don’t get your hopes up; men who spell themselves backwards don’t have much empathy. Catch a plane—they’re fast and final.”
From a neighboring woodlot came a growl of angry bumblebees. Pierce Willoughby and the grandsons clearing deadfall, brush-hogging, whacking down saplings—this year’s succulent new growth—between his trees so that the deer would have a hard time foraging in the coming winter.
Willoughby would be hunched over under a blaze orange hard hat. Pierce Willoughby and the residue of Betty Willoughby, held ageless by Elder Jesse’s rifle shot. He, Lucy, would’ve shot back—be prepared, Boy Scout shit. Had Old Willoughby been a Boy Scout? Yes, Lucy remembered him at the meetings. A skinny kid with acne: shy. Afraid of the dark yet he hid in the corners. Now here he was, slaughtering the next summer’s crop of yearling fawns. Willoughby’s Christian precept was if you got anything in this life you had to work for it. The deer work hard and what do they get? Starvation, thought Lucy. “Stingy Prick,” Lucy said to Sarah. “Willoughby, not your soon-to-be ex-boyfriend, the creatively spelled Frenchman.”
Over a rise and through a copse of mixed maple and birch, the buzzing of a swarm of gasoline bush-whackers rose again in the still, wet air. They were getting closer. They were cutting mighty close to the Hobart precincts. He’d have to... Wait. Willoughby and the Beauteous Bee, his murdered missus: “Hi there Lucy. You wanted me and now it’s too late. I got shot. Always too late.” Bee was coquettish even in death. “Sorry,” her whisper trilled aimlessly among the chainsaws, the birds, the mating dragonflies. Bee had died elsewhere, otherwhen, plugged by a blind deacon of the church.
Bee Reynolds had worn her hair in a teased bouffant bob and shrugged her black and white striped team jersey over to one side, allowing some plump pink shoulder. As much shoulder as was allowed in 1926. Lucy had seen her garter belt once, on the wash line. He came by washdays regularly after that. How had Pierce Willoughby snagged the Big Bee?—a rare piece of ass by all accounts, those tales of teen prowess largely made up and retailed in the boys locker room. At sixteen he had loved her—a condition hinted at in movies and books, but outside the expertise of high school basketball. They married right out of school, the Bee and Pierce Willoughby, and she lost weight. Huh, figure that one out. Lucy wondered if she still wore the garter belt he had seen that one washday. As she was dead; he doubted it. If she wore it still, and with it his schoolboy lust for a chubby girl with one bare shoulder—a vision of skin yet to be revealed, a ghost in a garter belt—it was out of reach under the cold rocky ground.
Good Protestant penury had kept Willoughby—and by conjugal bond, Betty—piss-poor. Willoughby worked her hard, thought Lucy. The Bee was dead and still a beauty. If marriage takes the pounds off, imagine what death will do to the appetite—something in there about fasting and health, he’d have to ask Sarah. Those holy men who take water only for forty days and forty nights. They do not die. Well, if they do we never hear about it—they die somewhere beyond the story, outside the confines of the Book. Everybody dies. Except me, thinks Lucy.
The chainsaws buzzed louder. Willoughby’s sons, his grandsons would carry on the family charge to starve the deer and let the tall timber stand. An erectile proverb, Lucy laughed to himself, deeply, resonantly within his chest, until he was bent over double with a coughing fit. Sarah stopped the tire swing. “Lucy.”
“Phlegm is all. I coughed it up. Want a show and tell?” He spat.
“You are incorrigible.” His daughter kicked the ground and flew into the sky. “You have had the pneumonia vaccine, I suppose.” Sarah sounded ready to be disappointed.
The day was rainy as he remembered it. Or was it a fine drizzle—fog, yes, there had been fog, too. In a reverie of failed romance, thought Lucy, the days are sunny or rainy—nothing between. A passive backdrop only, for lost passion, love’s leftovers past recovery—broken limbs, fallen trees, snowdrifts, precipitated by weather long gone. Or a fever dream when all you really meant to do was say goodbye. This was the man’s way as ordained by the women’s novels that lined the blue-painted shelves of nickel lending libraries.
Clear-eyed Alicia had come to the door in floppy house slippers, a hastily thrown on bathrobe. “Alicia...” She carried a book, her place marked with a thumb. The women who read these books did not ask for them at the public library but in tearooms and pharmacies while waiting for their mildly alcoholic heal-all or a cup of Darjeeling. They took the thrust at a safe remove, second-hand, filtered through rental tales of love everlasting.
“I came to say goodbye,” Lucy said. He had brought her an orange. “Navel encounter without loss of semen. That’s a joke.” He smiled.
Alicia touched the orange, caressed it. She accepted his offer of fruit and was ashamed. “Lucy...” He came in for his goodbye embrace. Cat Armstrong was not spoken of. He had meant to. He did not feel love for Alicia. His feelings were lust and a corrosive pity.
Lucy thought of Cat alone in her room with the flickering shadows. Their second honeymoon they had called the first. His second honeymoon was his alone; he was gone a week and screwed Alicia Drye on a rollaway bed in her Ohio parlor. How many years had it been since he had seen her? Had she been faithful to him? He had been casually faithful. “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion.” This was in 1953 and to quote Dowson’s Cynara poem seemed important as he stood outside on the doorstep. “Desolate and sick because the night was long...”
“Come in,” Alicia smelled like wine. “Oh, Lucy. You have been gone. Oh, let’s see. Eight years, yes. I noticed you were not around the house, didn’t I? You said something.”
“Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae,” said Lucy. “That’s a poem. The Victorian Decadents, Ernest Dowson.”
The director signals his plywood wranglers to fly in a scrim and rotate the stage. A stagehand walks in from stage left to replace the bouquet of daisies on the table. The daisies have wilted while waiting for the scene change. Alicia is pacing and staring out the window.
“We read things together, Lucy. I remember that. Did we read that, that... what you said?” The sour morning taste of yesterday’s hangover plus a fresh layer of the morning’s eye-opener. The wine that came delivered from the grocery store in screw-top pint bottles. Madder music, stronger wine. A dog barked and a cat fight started at the rear of the tiny house. Alicia collected strays in his absences. Their house had been taken over by many cats, a poodle, three German shepherds and a Pomeranian—a pony, once. There was the aura of droppings left and gone to compost where they fell.
Their sex was business-like and quickly done. Lucy cried, then left. Alicia looked for the ammonia and began cleaning up after the animals.
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